Obama rethinks the Arab Spring

By Victor Kotsev 
The recent attacks on American and European embassies and the riots throughout the Muslim world are bringing home what the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran failed to get across: that much of the world strongly resents Western hegemony. Amid chants of “Listen, listen, oh Obama! The entire nation is Osama!” and placards stating “Our dead are in paradise. Your dead are in hell” even Americans are waking up – with a start – to this uncomfortable reality. 
The reasons for these sentiments are complex, and some of the hype is overblown. There are plenty of legitimate complaints and resentments that people in the developing world harbor against the West; there is also a fair amount of scapegoating involved. As Foreign Policy analyst James Traub put it, “Blaming the West, and above all the United States, allows leaders to distract attention from their own failings, ordinary citizens to live with their sense of humiliation, and Islamist and anti-Western parties and factions to burnish their ‘resistance’ credentials.” [1] 
The absurd nature of the cause for the riots – a movie allegedly made by an Egyptian-American serial fraudster who hired a 1970s soft-core porn director and tricked the entire cast with a fake plot – adds emphasis to the latter point. So does the observation of the US-based intelligence analysis organization Stratfor that “Egyptians were unaware that the video even existed until a talk show host named Sheikh Khalid Abdullah devoted his two-hour program to the film Sept. 8 . … As a Salafist, whose beliefs run counter to those of the ruling Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Abdullah may have screened the film to incite chaos and complicate Egypt’s newly elected president’s attempts to consolidate power.” 
In and of themselves, the riots are less dangerous than they seem. Speculation that Obama is facing a “1979 Iran moment”, despite the many superficial similarities, [2] probably has more to do with the American presidential election than with reality on the ground. Previous episodes of similar violence wound down on their own – for example, in 2005-2006 after the publication of a series of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper and in 2010 after an American pastor (who is also involved in the current affair) threatened to burn the Muslim holy book, the Koran. 
As the prominent conservative analyst Robert Kagan wrote in the Washington Post, “Some conservatives are starting to make a glib comparison between the evolution of Egypt today and the Iranian revolution of 1979. This is a faulty analysis. Egypt is not declaring jihad on the West, and [Egyptian President Mohammed] Morsi is not Ayatollah Khomeini.” [3] 
The crisis is likely to even have some positive effects: at the very least, it will bring to the urgent attention of policy makers the many lapses they have made since the start of the Arab Spring. Development efforts, for example, have attracted plenty of criticism for poor planning and lack of sufficient political commitment. Security cooperation and intelligence gathering, as the events in Libya showed, also lag behind. 
However, given the larger geopolitical stand-off in the Middle East and the many extremist factions that have been unleashed and armed to the teeth in the course of several recent civil wars, a different danger lurks. The riots could serve as a cover for a more serious operation that could ignite the region. The highly professional attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last Tuesday and on the international peacekeeping force in the Sinai peninsula on Friday illustrate this threat. (Subsequently over the weekend, the Sinai militants reportedly downed an Egyptian military helicopter and besieged several Egyptian military bases.) 
Moreover, the sentiment behind the riots will not disappear, even though it may become less visible again. Given that the road of many Arab countries to democracy is likely to be long and tortuous, it is likely to reappear in an even more virulent form in the future. Therefore, it is of little consolation to the West that another Iran may not be in the making on the Nile; we can easily imagine other hostile scenarios that are no less dramatic. 
Consequently – and since US President Barack Obama’s Muslim politics over the past four years have demonstrably failed to change this basic reality – the crisis will also serve as a trigger for rethinking American foreign policy. Underneath all the debate about historic paradigms and values, we can see a more basic policy argument re-emerging and certain assumptions of the Obama administration about Arab democracy come into question.
The early rounds of soul-searching in American policy circles seem to have produced two main theories about what went wrong: that the administration is not doing enough in the Arab world, or that it is doing the wrong thing altogether. These two hypotheses will be applied not only to the general policy debate – which will be immediately relevant in the presidential election campaign – but also to specific policy decisions in each country. 
An early victim of this debate may well be Washington’s hands-off approach of “leading from behind” (incidentally, this would be a way to temporarily pacify both sides). While no tectonic shifts may happen overnight, we can expect a rapid correction, at least in countries such as Egypt and Libya, where subtler engagement is possible. In the mid-term, it remains to be seen how US policy on Syria and Iran will change. 
For now, greater engagement appears to mean greater cooperation with the newly emerged regimes. As Stratfor argues in another recent report, “The high-profile death of Washington’s top diplomat in Libya will pressure the United States to assist the government in Tripoli’s security efforts to combat jihadists in Benghazi.” 
Egypt’s president undoubtedly rubbed Obama the wrong way with his encouragement of demonstrations and delayed condemnation of the embassy attacks – causing the latter to proclaim that “I don’t think that we would consider [Egypt’s government] an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy” – but the Americans hardly have much of a choice. 
As Kagan put it, “If Egypt’s economy crumbles, is the nation going to become less radical? Is it more likely to uphold the peace treaty with Israel? Is it more likely to be a force for moderation in the greater Middle East?” 
It bears noting that Turkey announced Saturday a loan of US$2 billion to Egypt. [4] 
Down the road, however, the US president will face a greater pressure to either lead a more assertive policy or change his course altogether. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is engaged in an argument with Obama over the Iranian nuclear program, felt no qualms stepping right into this debate in interviews with several American TV channels on Sunday. “It’s the same fanaticism that you see storming your embassies today,” he told NBC, referring to the Iranian leaders. “You want these fanatics to have nuclear weapons?” 
Netanyahu’s comments, a direct appeal to the American public in the middle of a heated election campaign, underscore just how bitter the disagreement between the Israeli and the American leaders has become. (On Friday, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta rebuked the Israeli requests for “clear red lines” on Iran, telling Foreign Policy Magazine that “Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to try to put people in a corner.”)
The Israeli prime minister’s interference into this internal policy debate may be brazen, but he has a point. For him, the attacks on American embassies in the Middle East appear as a d้jเ-vu: exactly a year ago, a mob burnt the Israeli embassy in Cairo and only the last-minute intervention of the authorities, spurred on by repeated Israeli and American requests, prevented the harming of Israeli staffers. Arguably, back then Netanyahu’s mistrust of the Arabs paid; Israeli and American analysts are asking now if the US administration could have been more vigilant. 
According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, for example, American officials repeatedly ignored the warnings of their Israeli counterparts about “radicalizing trends” in the Arab countries. “Only now, after what happened to their embassies, the Americans are beginning to understand the situation,” an anonymous Israeli official told the newspaper. 
It is hard to imagine a more sober awakening for the US president spurred by such a ridiculous affair as the cheap, distasteful movie “The Innocence of Muslims.” While the debate about the course of US foreign policy is only just starting, it is overdue and will likely be dramatic 

1. The Tragic Optimism of an American Diplomat, Foreign Policy, September 12, 2012.
2. Anti-American unrest creates a ‘1979 moment’ for Obama, Global Post, September 14, 2012.
3. The proper US response to Cairo attack, Washington Post, September 13, 2012.
4. Turkey to Provide Egypt $2 Billion in Aid, Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst. 

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

function googleTranslateElementInit() { new google.translate.TranslateElement({ pageLanguage: ‘en’ }, ‘google_translate_element’); }

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.